Read more articles by Betsy Gardner

By Betsy Gardner • June 29, 2020

 

Melissa Bridges, Performance and Innovation Coordinator for the city of Little Rock
Melissa Bridges, Performance and Innovation Coordinator for the city of Little Rock

Melissa Bridges, Performance and Innovation Coordinator for the city of Little Rock, is in the process of building a house — a data house. The foundation is the Little Rock Data Hub, the walls are the Citizen Connect site, and the furniture is the city’s GIS mapping application. The goal is to get all Little Rock government employees and residents under one roof; a well constructed, community-supported, and data-based home to weather any storm — a crucial mission, considering the current global pandemic. 

 

Four years ago Bridges was the network security manager in the city’s IT Department when Little Rock began to work with What Works Cities on open data, results-driven contracting and performance measurement. Bridges was still in IT when the city launched its Open Data Policy in May 2016. The city continued to progress its open data work; by February 2017 Bridges moved from IT to her current role as the city's Performance and Innovation Coordinator.

 

Little Rock has seen decisive success with its data work. Bridges shared insights into the data-driven projects that are underway in Little Rock and unpacked the ways that she has been able to overcome challenges, in order to make the city’s “data house” a home where all residents feel comfortable engaging with and learning from the city’s open data. This has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when guidelines change quickly and residents need a trusted source of information. Below, Bridges breaks down her six guiding principles, providing advice on program sustainability, trust, and engagement. 

 

Overcome data-sharing uncertainty 

Bridges’ role requires her to manage both the internal, departmental data governance, and the external, public-facing open data—in this way, Bridges functions as the city’s de facto Chief Data Officer. As a part of the city’s adoption of data best practices, Bridges learned that moving the information from the departmental silos into the open can be a serious organizational challenge. When she first started opening up data, city employees were sometimes reluctant to share their departmental data, out of concerns that it would share too much or be misinterpreted. To counter this common fear, Bridges would point out that regardless of where the data lives — on a public-facing portal or in a department’s myriad spreadsheets — residents would still have the right to access this data through a time consuming Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

 

She explained that by sharing the information without a FOIA request, the city had the opportunity to show connections and contextualize the data in a way that would benefit both the department and the residents while also building trust. By overcoming her colleagues’ uncertainty, the city now has more than 40 datasets available to the public and has seen positive engagement around the information.  

 

Find the allies

Another way Bridges overcame the discomfort around open data was by finding allies in other departments who understood its importance and the possibilities that an open-data portal could unlock for both residents and the city. Over the last few years she has done the “invisible but very helpful” work of finding the other city employees who understand the need for a data-driven culture and will “stand up and fight for it with you.”  

 

Building an internal team that is enthusiastic about data usage and analysis has been incredibly helpful in advancing the city's efforts. Bridges' informal team has even volunteered their weekends to assist with the city’s Open Data Day celebrations and support her work as a one-woman office. Bridges also called on her data crew to help with COVID-19 related projects. 

 

Arkansas released some initial data about novel coronavirus infections in the state, but many residents found the information difficult to parse through because of issues with data formatting and opaque sources. One local resident, Misty Orpin, went so far as to make her own Arkansas COVID page and Twitter account to better visualize and explain the data, despite not having expertise in data management. Orpin’s work quickly became popular and caught Bridges' attention; she reached out to Orpin and connected her with the city's informal data crew to help run scripts and scrape data from the state’s clunkier database.   

 

Visualize the data

The 2020 Census is overlapping with the COVID-19 crisis, adding an additional layer of difficulty to this year’s count. In order to understand which tracts were underreporting, Bridges worked with other city officials to visualize and analyze the Census return data. They were surprised to see that a tract with a historically high return rate now had a very low percentage of returns. As Bridges looked at the map, she realized that the tract includes several of Little Rock’s major hospitals, and is home to many doctors and medical residents, who are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. Understandably, filling out Census forms was not front-of-mind for most inhabitants of this tract.

 

Once she noticed this, Bridges realized “this is something we can do something about.” She contacted Mayor Frank Scott’ sChief of Staff, the point person for the city’s Census efforts,  to discuss innovative ways to help essential medical workers complete this year’s Census. Bridges suggested placing stations within the hospitals where employees could fill out their Census, and asking the hospitals to remind workers about the perils of an undercount in the city.  

 

Build a sustainable training model

Since Bridges’ role requires her to wear multiple hats, she relies on a “train the trainer” model to build and maintain capacity. She does this both among her colleagues and with the Little Rock community. For example, last fall the city government had an internal training on design thinking, and each participant was tasked with bringing the plans back to their department and implementing ideas from the training with their colleagues who hadn’t attended. 

 

Bridges also works with heads of various neighborhood associations, training the organizations on the Citizen Connect data map, a map shows 311 requests, police crime data, and Housing & Neighborhood Programs data in a visual and easily searchable format, so they can do community trainings and share the knowledge with their area residents. 

 

Trust resident input

During an internal Data Academy to train city employees on problem solving and data as a resource, participants focused on data from a part of the city with high levels of blight and crime. Engaging with outside stakeholders, the Academy students decided to do a work session with the residents to discuss their data findings and ask residents what their concerns were. According to Bridges, the neighborhood members self-prioritized issues that “blew us out of the water.” The number one priority identified by the community: non-functioning streetlights, which hadn’t even surfaced in the data. 

 

The Academy participants showed the residents how to use 311 to report the streetlights, but many community members didn’t feel safe going out into the streets at night to identify and log the broken lights. The city Academy members came up with the idea of partnering community members with local college students, so they could drive or walk the area in groups and make 311 reports. The project was a huge success; in one night more than thirty streetlights were logged, five times the usual nightly amount. Bridges said this was “such a big moment of learning” because it helped them understand the barriers that prevent people from providing data, and how to supplement data with resident experiences.  

 

Use data to build relationships

The city’s ability to leverage the expertise of the Data Academy to improve residents' lives and the city’s delivery of services exemplifies how open data can increase trust and transparency between residents and their city government. As the city worked with the community to get the broken streetlights reported, Bridges and her data team were a constant presence, physically in the neighborhoods and on social media. Bridges and an intern gave presentations in the neighborhood and showed residents how to use Google Maps to plan 311 reporting groups; one mother/son team even turned the 311 streetlight reporting into a Pokemon-Go style game. All of this effort paid off; after a frenzied weekend of tagging, the local energy company came into the neighborhoods the following Monday and began to repair the lights. 

 

Beyond the obvious benefits to the neighborhood landscape and feelings of security, the fixed lights also represented an important, reciprocal relationship between the government and the residents. Fixing things that were self-surfaced neighborhood priorities built trust. 

 

In addition to a big roof, Bridges wants to rebuild—and widen— the front door to Little Rock’s metaphorical “Data House”. Later this year she hopes to have the gateway to the city’s data work revamped for employees and easier to understand for residents, as she’s worried that the open data portals aren’t as accessible as they could be.  Additionally, Bridges is now working with an interdepartmental team within City Hall to strengthen Little Rock’s data governance infrastructure and performance management systems, and work with Mayor Scott and the rest of Little Rock leadership towards the city achieving its first ever What Works Cities Certification.  “It’s an open conversation,” she said, “but keep an eye on Little Rock.”